Well, it’s been a while. Over a year in fact. A lot has happened in that time, both good and bad. I’m not going to bore you by going through it all, suffice it to say that each thing would be able to interrupt my blogging, but none of it for this long, so I’ve got no excuse. One thing that has happened is that I’ve moved. I’m no longer in Barry, but now live in Aberdare, something that meant I had to leave the Porthkerry Wildlife Group that I’d set up, but they’re still going strong, so it’s all ok!
So what’s in Aberdare? Well, for a start there’s Dare Valley Country Park. It’s a big place, and has many habitats and wildlife, which (like Porthkerry) the Rangers are finding hard to keep on top of, so – yes, you guessed it – I set up Dare Valley Wildlife Group! We’re not as successful as the Porthkerry guys- in fact, it was only a couple of months ago that our regular members swelled to five! I’m not going to talk about the park today. No, instead, in the spirit of hopefully encouraging non-enthusiasts to take up a new interest (Wow! that sounds big-headed!) and also to show new readers where I’m coming from. I’m going to tell you about some of my encounters with wildlife. All of them are from the UK, and they are just some of the reasons why I love our country’s wildlife as much as I do.
Most people have never seen a live mole. I’ve been lucky enough to see two. The first was in the late 80s, during my early teens. I was on a concrete taxi-way during an airshow at RAF Fairford. I felt something on my foot, looked down and there was a mole climbing off my boot! I followed it until it disappeared into the long grass. The second was a couple of years ago at Wenvoe. It was standing in front of me when I got off the bus,and again disappeared into the grass. One thing I’ll say about moles is that their fur doesn’t look black, more silvery. With the possible exception of the bat that tried to land in my bandana tails and ended up swinging round and landing on my shoulder before dropping down and flying off, the mole-on-my-foot story was probably the mildest of my physical encounters with wildlife! Twice in my life I’ve been run over by a Muntjac. Twice! Not in the same place- not even in the same county! I was cycling down Cemetery Hill in Bedford one night around half eight, and it was dusk. All of a sudden a Muntjac came out of a hole under a wall, and knocked me off my bike. It then proceeded to headbutt me for another minute or two before running off- I can only assume it was an amorous male! That was the second time, and at least the first was an accident. I was walking my then girlfriend’s Dalmatian, when a Muntjac leapt out of the ditch by the side of the road, knocking me into the dog. The three of us rolled over each other, and when me and the dog got to our feet, we could see the Muntjac bouncing off in the distance! It wouldn’t have been so bad, but that day I’d already been knocked over by a brace of pheasants! Walking the dog through a knee-high field, I must have been walking in a perfect straight line towards them because they came up out of the grass about six feet in front of me, and as they went to go either side of me, the hit each shoulder – not wing-clipped, bounced into me – at nearly the same time, causing me to fall backwards!
Birds aren’t always accidental when crashing into me. When our dog Poppy was only a few months old, I was walking her in Finsbury Park, when we came upon a fledgling Carrion Crow sitting on the grass next to a fence. Poppy’s reaction was to play with it. Not play with it like it was a toy, but play with it like it was me or another dog- she wanted it to chase her! Mum and Dad Crow however, had very different ideas. They attacked, trying to peck her eyes. I grabbed her and we ran. When they realised they couldn’t get to her, they switched to bombing us with pooh. We ended up going round half the park before we were let off, but the interesting thing is that it wasn’t the same pair the whole time. They chased us a little way before another pair took over, and then again with a third pair. It was very interesting- it definitely proved to me that crows communicate! It was also quite scary, scarier than when the Buzzard mobbed me- she was just defending her nest as I’d accidentally got too close. I still had to go quite a distance and even then back up to a tree before she would finally go!
My encounters aren’t always so physical. The first time I saw a Jay was in Hatfield Forest. We were just wandering around enjoying the woods, when we saw a Jay on the ground. It looked a little odd, so we slowed down, shut up, crouched down and crept forward- only to discover that it was anting! I’ve never seen one do it since, and we only saw it for a few seconds after realising what was happening, but it was long enough! I’ve seen Sparrowhawks catch pigeons, Kestrels hovering and catching rodents, a Peregrine dive and grab a Starling mid-air and various birds of prey being mobbed by other birds (including a Peregrine mobbed by a mixed flock of swifts, swallows, and house martins, and a Buzzard mobbed by a Raven mobbed by a Carrion Crow!) Accidental sightings like this is what the world is made of- it’s far more fulfilling than something you’ve sat in a hide waiting five hours to see (and that can be pretty damn fulfilling!) One year we were just leaving The Lodge (RSPB HQ at Sandy) when a Ranger came out of the building and excitedly told us a Hoopoe had been spotted on site- obviously we went and saw it! While on the subject of the RSPB, I worked in a call centre, calling for various charities, and was briefed to call for them. The script was about songbird decline,and the success of Red Kite conservation. The first morning of the campaign, on the very same Muntjac sparring-ground that is Cemetery Hill, I saw my first ever Red Kite! My first ever Kingfisher was when I was on a school trip to Stowmarket, and I watched as it caught a fish. I’ve only ever seen one Osprey, but that caught a fish and manoeuvred it with its feet. My first ever Otter I thought was a dog!
The beauty of these things is that they happen throughout your life as long as you think to keep an eye out- you can’t be too young or too old. Last year I saw my first Wheatear on Barry beach, just strolling along with friends (me, not the Wheatear!). The year before, me and two friends had gone to a place near Pontypridd to see Nightjars. We had no expectations- we genuinely thought we’d just hear some churring, and we’d have been more than happy with that. We were wrong. We heard both the call and the churr. While we were waiting for the sun to go down we saw a Crossbill, and we knew that was going to be the highlight. Then we heard some churring and located it as coming from a field. We decided not to go into the field as they’re a ground-nesting species, and it was that time of year. Then we saw one on a log. I can’t describe the excitement! It’s one British bird that I’ve always written off as something I’d never see. And I managed to get a photo! Admittedly its not a good photo- 500mm lens at full zoom just after dusk, no flash, not tripod, BUT I TOOK A PHOTO OF A NIGHTJAR! And then IT happened. Ten feet away on the ground, while two flew around our heads (I cannot tell you just how falcon-like they are in flight!) was a Nightjar feigning a broken wing to lure us away- there was a nest in the field! The responsible decision to stay out was the right one. that experience kept me on a high for days!
I hope I don’t come across like I’m showing off. I love our wildlife. I want everyone else to as well. There are loads of species I haven’t seen- Badgers, Red Squirrels, Waxwings, Nightingales to name just four. But I like that- I like the fact that I’m not a box-ticker. I can still sit and watch an ordinary Great Tit go about it’s business and come away smiling. I’m heading towards my 41st birthday, my memory isn’t too good either, yet I remember my firsts, I remember the encounters. I could name others- a ghostly Barn Owl at night lit by busy London street lights. Great Crested Grebes courting in Bedford, accidentally walking into a Red Deer rut in Richmond Park and standing nervously still up against a tree. I will never understand why not everyone does this. Why don’t people marvel at Bullfinches- hell, why don’t they even notice them? How can people dismiss Water Voles as rats- or any other vole for that matter? I often wax lyrical about our ordinary wildlife- Magpies, Foxes and the like. But there’s more to it than that.
In the last ten years I’ve shown a woman in her late-twenties her first ever hedgehog, and a couple of years ago her first Slow Worm. Both times, the look on her face was priceless. At the moment, as a movement, we are (rightly) concentrating on getting children into wildlife, educating them so that when they get older they will want to take care of the environment, but I believe we should also be re-connecting adults. We live our lives seeing species and having experiences for the first time, but to do that we have to be looking at the world around us. THAT is why I set up Porthkerry Wildlife Group. THAT is why I set up Dare Valley Wildlife Group. THAT is why I will set up similar groups in every town I ever live in. It’s not up to the charities to do this- they can’t. As far as most people are concerned, because they’re the experts, the charities are the “people I give my money to and they spend it on things that I don’t really understand, but I don’t need to.” No, it isn’t up to them. It is up to me. It is up to the members of the wildlife groups in Porthkerry and Dare Valley. It is up to you. We aren’t the experts sitting behind a desk working it all out. We are the people in the street, the ordinary people with ordinary jobs. We are the real role-models. Experts are inspiration, but role-models are next door neighbours, cousins, colleagues, drinking partners. We are the ones that prove you can be normal and understand how biodiversity means we can’t install a bypass. We don’t lecture or preach, we say “look at that, isn’t it amazing”. We don’t bore people with speeches, we show them things by pointing them out. We don’t make them feel inadequate or bored- and most importantly, we have normal lives.